Runcie arrested on perjury charge, scholarships bill clears House, budget snag over federal aid, and more

Runcie indicted: Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie was arrested Wednesday and accused of perjury as part of a statewide grand jury investigation. The indictment alleges that Runcie, 59, lied to the grand jury when he testified three weeks ago, but didn’t specify what his testimony was about. That charge is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The grand jury was empaneled in 2019 to investigate whether the district followed school-safety laws and mismanaged funds meant to improve security at schools after the Parkland school shooting in 2018, and later expanded its scope to include corruption and mismanagement in district operations. Also arrested was general counsel Barbara Myrick, 72, who is accused of illegally disclosing information about the grand jury proceedings and persons being investigated. Neither said they knew the details of the charges, but plan to plead not guilty and said they want to continue working, though the school board will make that decision. Three high-ranking district officials have now been arrested this year. The other was Tony Hunter, the district’s former chief technology officer who was arrested in January and charged with bribery and bid-rigging. Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. Associated Press. WLRN. WPLG. WSVN. WFOR. WTVJ. WPTV. New York Times. The 74.

Scholarship bill passes: The House has approved a school choice bill that would merge five state K-12 scholarship programs into three and expand eligibility. H.B. 7045 would merge the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special-needs students with the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students of families with lower incomes, and boost the maximum income eligibility to receive a scholarship to 375 percent of the federal poverty level, or $99,375 a year for a family of four. The bill calls for priority to be given to families whose income does not exceed 185 percent of that benchmark, or $49,025 for that family of four. The Senate has been proposing to merge the scholarships into two programs and open education savings accounts for students in the programs, though Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, has filed an amendment that would align its bill with the House version. State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, who sponsored H.B. 7045, said it could add 61,000 students to scholarship programs and cost the state $200 million a year. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the scholarship programs. Politico Florida. redefinED. News Service of Florida. Orlando Sentinel. USA Today Florida Network. Florida Phoenix. WOFL.

Spending federal aid: How to spend $12 billion in federal aid earmarked for education and another $10 billion in general stimulus funding remain sticking points in state budget discussions between the Senate and House. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, wants to give the Department of Education authority to disburse about $7 billion in aid directly to school districts, while Senate leaders have said little about their plans. Some legislators are urging the state to focus the spending on remedial programs and reading scholarships, while others contend that schools do not even need the money. “It is an absolute travesty that the federal government has put our children in debt to give us education funding that we simply do not need, but we are going to be as responsible as we can with it,” said Republican Rep. Randy Fine, the House’s top education budget negotiator. Miami Herald. Politico Florida. The state and school districts have new federal regulations to follow if they want to get access to the last $41 billion in coronavirus stimulus aid. States have been told by the Biden administration that they must submit plans by June 7 that detail how they would spend the aid before it will be released. Florida is expected to receive about $7 billion. About $81 billion of the $122 billion allocated for education has already been distributed. Politico.

Also in the Legislature: The House gave final approval to a proposal asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment limiting local school board members to eight years in office. The Senate version is awaiting committee action. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics. WJXT. A bill that would protect colleges and universities from coronavirus-related lawsuits was approved Wednesday by the Florida House. H.B. 1261 would take effect in July, and would not have an effect on class-action lawsuits already filed to force schools to refund money to students for the time the schools closed and switched to remote learning because of the pandemic. News Service of Florida. Tampa Bay Times. The House approved a bill limiting increases in local impact fees on new construction, which schools and other government agencies depend on to accommodate growth. WMFE.

School relief aid rules: The states and school districts have new federal regulations to follow if they want to get access to the last $41 billion in coronavirus stimulus aid. States have been told by the Biden administration that they must submit plans by June 7 that detail how they would spend the aid before it will be released. About $81 billion of the $122 billion allocated for education under the American Rescue Plan Act has already been distributed. Politico.

Around the state: The Miami-Dade County School Board announces its commitment to switch to clean energy by 2030, a special Hillsborough County School Board meeting has been called for Friday to discuss what the board chair says is new information about the district’s financial situation, an audit discovers that about $286,000 in kitchen equipment is missing from Broward County schools, more Duval County high schools cancel prom plans because of a lack of interest, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that it is extending its free school meals program through the 2021-2022 academic year. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: The district will switch to 100 percent “clean energy” by 2030, school officials vowed at Wednesday’s school board meeting. The resolution the board approved does not define clean energy, but typically it means switching buses and vehicles from fossil fuel to electric and powering schools with solar energy. Students and their parents developed the plan and sold it to the board. Miami Herald. A week after the district revealed that a majority of its black students did not perform at grade level in state assessments in 2019, the school board is being asked to approve applications for several charter schools under the state’s Schools of Hope program. That program helps highly regarded charter school companies move into neighborhoods with persistently low-performing schools. The Mater Academy has plans to open seven charter schools between now and 2023. Miami New Times.

Broward: About $286,000 worth of kitchen equipment is missing from Broward schools, according to an audit released this week. Items were unaccounted for from 46 schools and food service locations. District officials said some ovens, freezers, food processors, mixers and other equipment may have been stolen, and others disposed of without proper documentation. A district administrator attributed problems with documentation to the district’s manual system for inventory. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough: An unusual emergency school board meeting has been called for Friday at 10:30 a.m. Board chair Lynn Gray would not disclose the agenda, other than to say she’s received new information that “has to do with leadership and it’s something that is written and it is not hearsay,” but that “there will be no motion to get the superintendent or any staff fired.” She added, “This additional information has to be shared in a transparent way and I want (board members) to have access to it before the media because they need to be the narrators of this information.” The district has been rocked over the past two weeks with more than 1,000 teachers laid off, some after they had been assured they still had jobs for the next school year, and calls for Superintendent Addison Davis to be fired. Davis said the layoffs, and other cost-cutting measures, are necessary to help erase a $100-million-plus budget deficit. Tampa Bay Times. WTSP.

Palm Beach: School board members approved the firing of a 4th-grade teacher at Grove Park Elementary School who was arrested in early April and accused of offering to pay a man so he could sexually assault a 2-year-old girl. Board chair Frank Barbieri said the case of Xavier Alexander is prompting consideration to change the notification policy in such cases. After Alexander was arrested, the school district alerted parents of children in his class but did not inform the two schools where he previously worked. “I wasn’t aware that wasn’t done,” Barbieri said. “And that’s certainly a policy we should be taking a look at to see what could be done to change it to make sure our children are protected no matter what school they’re in.” WPEC. Dozens of parents protested against the district’s face mask mandate at Wednesday’s school board meeting, and in the street outside the building. The board has yet to decide if masks will be optional for the 2021-2022 school year. WPTV.

Duval: Seven more county high schools have joined Mandarin High in canceling their proms due to a lack of interest. Edward White, Englewood, Stanton, A. Philip Randolph, Darnell Cookman, Andrew Jackson and Wolfson high schools also canceled their proms on Wednesday. Some students cited the restrictions as reasons for not going. Prom guidance from the district calls for outdoor settings with masks required, no guests allowed from other schools, and 10 days of quarantine for anyone who attends, which means those students would also miss sports and extracurricular activities. Florida Times-Union. WJXT.

Polk: A man was arrested and charged with failure to store a firearm after his kindergarten-age son took a loaded handgun to Wendell Watson Elementary School in Lakeland on Monday. The man told police he accidentally put the pistol in his son’s backpack after they returned from a vacation. Bay News 9.

Santa Rosa: Students and employees will have to continue wearing face masks in schools after the school board voted this week to extend their policy. Superintendent Karen Barber proposed changing the to policy to make mask-wearing optional but highly recommended on June 15, when summer school starts. More than a dozen parents spoke against the mask mandate at Tuesday’s marathon meeting, and one was escorted from the room after cursing board members and calling them “communists.” Pensacola News Journal.

Hernando: Ed LaRose, the principal at D.S. Parrott Middle School in Brooksville, has been named the new principal at Weeki Wachee High School. He’s replacing Troy LaBarbara, who will become the district’s director of exceptional student education on July 1. Suncoast News.

Colleges and universities: Patricia Okker has been named president of New College in Sarasota, and will take over when president Donal O’Shea retires July 1. Okker has been the dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri since 2017. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WUSF. Ruth Alexander, who founded the women’s intercollegiate athletic program at the University of Florida in 1972 and was a leader in the national Title IX movement, died Tuesday in Gainesville. She was 83. Gainesville Sun.

Around the nation: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that it is extending its free school meals program through the 2021-2022 academic year. The program had been scheduled to end Sept. 30. Washington Post. Congressional Democrats are proposing to commit $25 billion from President Biden’s infrastructure stimulus package to convert the nation’s school buses from fossil fuels to electric. Associated Press.

Opinions in schools: Now is the time to move away from the old norms of traditional grading and assessment and embrace a competency-based education approach, because it better aligns with true teaching and learning. Ben Owens and Joey Lee, Getting Smart. Superintendent Greg Adkins is leaving a legacy of progress at the Lee County School District. Michael V. Martin, Fort Myers News-Press. The push to ban vaccination passports will endanger people to coddle the reckless. Frank Cerabino, Palm Beach Post. More families want options for their children’s academic environment. Let’s listen to them and expand  popular school choice programs so ALL students have equitable opportunity to succeed in school and in life. Keli Mondello, Florida Politics.

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BY NextSteps staff